Mitt Romney and John McCain sparred in the Republicans’ second debate in New Hampshire, where they are in a close race in the US state’s first-in-the-nation primary election tomorrow.
Among Democrats, Barack Obama opened a lead against his rivals in the latest polls.
Mr McCain and Mr Romney disputed their tax and spending records and who was a better agent for change, as the Republicans kicked off a second debate last night in a studio on the campus of St Anselm College in Manchester.
“You have a choice,” Mr Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, said after ticking off his accomplishments in office. “You can select somebody who wants to fight for those things, or you can select somebody who’s actually done those things.”
Mr McCain, a senator from Arizona, listed the wasteful spending he has exposed, as well as an Air Force tanker contract he squashed.
“I think it was a reason why I wasn’t elected Miss Congeniality in the Senate,” Mr McCain said. “I have a record of saving billions of dollars.”
Among Democrats, a new USA Today-Gallup poll showed Mr Obama opening up a lead at 41 percent, with Hillary Rodham Clinton at 28%, and John Edwards at 19%. The New Hampshire poll was taken between Friday and Sunday.
In campaigning yesterday, Mrs Clinton told voters they should elect “a doer, not a talker”, while Mr Obama countered that his rivals are stuck in the politics of the past.
The Republican nomination race has grown ever tighter. A new USA Today/Gallup poll showed the lead for Republicans race within the margin of error in New Hampshire.
Mr McCain had the support of 34 percent of likely New Hampshire voters, up from 27 percent in mid-December. Mr Romney was at 30 percent, down from 34 percent, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee – the Iowa caucus winner – was third at 13 percent. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had 8 percent, while former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson was in the low single digits.
Mr Romney, who pinned his presidential bid on using momentum from big wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, needs a victory to prove his candidacy is not crippled after an Iowa drubbing.
Mr McCain has put all his chips on a New Hampshire victory that would repeat his success here eight years ago.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas – who had 8 percent – was excluded from the debate by the sponsor, Fox News Channel, and the New Hampshire Republican Party dropped out of the forum to protest the exclusion.
Tomorrow’s primary could also be pivotal for the Democrats. Mr Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, is hoping to sustain momentum from his caucus victory in Iowa, and Mrs Clinton, a senator from New York and a former first lady, is looking to recover from her stinging third place finish.
At a raucous rally in a high school gymnasium in Nashua, Mrs Clinton skewered Mr Obama for several votes he has cast in the Senate, such as his vote for anti-terrorism laws and energy legislation. She never mentioned Mr Obama’s name but left no doubt about who she was discussing.
“You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose,” Mrs Clinton said.
Mr Obama, speaking at a packed Manchester theatre, took issue with Mrs Clinton’s criticism of him during Saturday’s Democratic presidential debate.
“The real gamble in this election is to do the same things, with the same folks, playing the same games over and over and over again and somehow expect a different result,” he said.
Mr Edwards, who barely beat Mrs Clinton for second place in Iowa, told reporters that he and Mr Obama offer real change to voters, while Mrs Clinton represents “the status quo”.
But he argued he has more passion for change and would be more willing than Mr Obama to fight for his goals. “He just believes you can negotiate with people,” Mr Edwards said of his rival.
Asked yesterday about an alliance with Mr Obama, Mr Edwards said: “I think there is a conviction alliance.”
Then he added: “First of all, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an alliance. Let me disagree with that. ...”